This editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Saturday:
If a millennial voter goes to the polls but isn’t allowed to take a ballot selfie to document the moment on social media, did it really happen? More important, is democracy imperiled?
We’re sort of teasing about young people’s obsession with smartphone cameras. We’re serious about believing voters have a constitutional right to take pictures of themselves in a voting booth with a completed ballot.
You might be surprised to learn there is an active question surrounding the legality of so-called ballot selfies, with conflicting opinions held by election officials. Some like the idea; others are appalled and won’t allow photography. That means depending on where you vote Nov. 8 or during early voting, you could get in trouble for whipping out your iPhone.
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The confusion needs to be resolved.
In the Chicago area, Cook County Clerk David Orr says all photography is banned at all polling places, citing privacy concerns. But a spokesman for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners says city voters have a constitutional right to take ballot selfies. Voters in the further out Lake County also will be allowed to do so. “As long as they don’t infringe on anyone else’s ballot security, we are OK with it,” Lake County Clerk Carla Wyckoff said.
The city and Lake County take their cues from recent court decisions that say voters at polling stations who take photos of themselves with marked ballots and then post them to social media are exercising freedom of speech. Laugh if Facebook and Instagram mean nothing to you, but the court rulings said political selfies are protected by the First Amendment.
The question rarely if ever came up before because people in previous generations didn’t make photography such an integral part of their lives. Actually, the opposite was true. There were barriers to taking pictures — because most people didn’t carry cameras and because of privacy concerns. Polling stations are a prime example: There is a tradition of secret ballots and laws against electioneering, voter fraud and intimidation that seemed incompatible with allowing photography.
“You never want to have that pressure of ‘Show me how you voted,’” Orr told us.
The starkest argument in favor of a ban is that shooting pictures of completed ballots could encourage vote buying (show a photo to prove you voted for Candidate X and collect $10). Voter fraud was more common decades ago, but the argument still carries sway. The Associated Press recently identified 18 states in which current law appeared to view ballot selfies as illegal. The AP said Illinois law declares it a felony to “knowingly” fill out a ballot and divulge it to another person. Conviction could mean imprisonment of one to three years. Whoa.
Times change, though, and selfies rule: selfies at dinner, at Wrigley Field and, sure, at the ballot box. All elections are exercises in free speech, and political discourse — have you noticed? — is ubiquitous today. The internet and social media allow all citizens to express themselves, so no shock that many voters who share their political views on social media want to show Election Day pride with ballot photos. They have a constitutional right to do so.
After a Michigan voter challenged that state’s law against polling place photography, U.S. District Court Judge Janet Neff ruled Oct. 24 in favor of ballot selfies, issuing a preliminary injunction against the ban. The judge, citing a similar federal appeals court ruling in a New Hampshire case, said the photo ban was unconstitutional under the First Amendment, agreeing with the plaintiff that other laws in place are sufficient protection against vote corruption.
That makes sense to us. A crucial component of democracy is enthusiasm for our system of government process, and that’s what the ballot selfie communicates. Election officials, mindful of their responsibility to protect the integrity of voting, should look for every opportunity to engage and encourage voters, especially young ones new to the process.
Think of a ballot selfie as the digital equivalent of a citizenship badge. On Election Day many people who perform their civic duty proudly wear a sticker that says “I voted.” The photo says the same thing.
Selfies showing your completed ballot, or you in any part of the private voting area, is against the law in Mississippi. Harrison County Circuit Clerk Connie Ladner says she is encouraging people to take their “I voted” sticker they receive at the precincts, go outside and take a picture of that to post to social media. Taking a picture inside the voting area is punishable by fine or arrest, though Ladner says this presidential race is the first time it’s been an issue in South Mississippi.